(How To Grow Up) To Be a Famous American

In the past year, my son has had occasion to read a few selections from a series of books called the “Childhood of Famous Americans.”  He has read four of them – on Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Jim Thorpe – and enjoys them enough, but I’ve come to realize that he likes the focus on childhood more than the overall story of the person’s life.  In fact, as the title of the series makes evident, these books are centered on the subject’s childhood almost more than their overall lives.  While this is fine and good, I suppose, it’s also kind of odd considering their great achievements came later in life.  Well, I should say it’s odd until you recognize the ideological underpinning of the series and its indebtedness to core American mythology.

The roster of subjects for the collection includes many figures you’d expect: George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Edison, etc.  There are also some wild cards: John Muir, Harry Houdini, Jim Henson, Disney, and Roberto Clemente.  It’s not these people are not worthy of inclusion or didn’t lead outstanding lives; it’s just not really clear what the criteria for selection into this pantheon are or how the choices are made.  Plus, I’m not sure Clemente would have identified as American!

What does seem essential for individuals to be included – or at least essential for their stories to have been, is some semblance of the American Dream to be at play in their path to success – especially in relation to their ability to overcome hardship.

The back-cover copy of my son’s Jim Thorpe: Olympic Champon, the latest one he finished, claims that the series offers “lively, inspiring, fictionalized biographies” for readers to enjoy.  These three adjectives are quite revealing, if we take a moment to consider them.  Certainly readers will hope that the stories are lively and engaging – most books seek to be so, if only as a way to keep the reader reading, and hopefully to come back for another book in the collection.  But why inspiring?  And inspiring how?  Moreover, why the need to fictionalize?  Aren’t these lives dramatic and inspiring enough?  Aren’t their achievements worthy enough of inclusion?  What exactly is being fictionalized in these biographies, and to what end?

All of which goes to say (or ask): what’s the function of these texts?  Each of them seems to have at its core some fundamental dramatization of the American Dream.  Central to each story seems to be that the path to success must include overcoming adversity or suffering.  Great things can happen for those who locate ways to not only survive but who can actually locate their central character in the battle over suffering and adversity.  The series, much like the Dream itself, argues that struggling through the hard times enables you – in fact is virtually essential to your ability – to achieve success.

There’s a long history to the series. There are over fifty of them, and if you scroll through Amazon you’ll find lots of different editions, let alone different subjects.  But all the books seem to be set on the same narrative arc.  Each subject’s childhood tends to be the time where his/her character is determined – either through the good example of parents/teachers/mentors or through the ability to overcome marginalization, danger, or suffering.  The choices one makes as an adult, in other words, are determined by the crucible of our experience in our childhood.

(By the way, the formula obviously works – the series gets quite a spread in our local Barnes and Noble, and as I said, Amazon is rampant with these books!)

Ultimately, the link between pedagogy and ideology goes beyond the limitations of political party or even a liberal/conservative split.  At the heart of these narratives is a belief in two things.  The first of these is that our childhood determines who we will become; moreover, our ability to negotiate the travails of our childhood successfully helps determine who we will be.  There’s a hint of determinism in this, in that what happens early in life controls what happens later, but ultimately our circumstances don’t determine who we will be.  Rather, it is how we respond as individuals to those circumstances that will determine who we will be.  We have free will, agency, the ability to shape our future, based on the choices we make.  In America, we believe that we make choices freely and independently and that these choices determine what happens for us.  This adds up to a core belief in individualism triumphing over determinism.

The second belief that is fundamental to these stories is that those people whose stories are worth telling are those who have gone down this path.  Aren’t there stories of great and wonderful and successful Americans who didn’t have to travel down this path?  Which presidents were left out?  Which captains of industry?  Technological innovators?  I don’t think Bill Gates would make the cut, not with his upbringing.  But there aren’t many more famous Americans living today, or those whose global reach has touched as many people – either in terms of his business or his philanthropy.  Bill Clinton?  Sure. Jack Welch?  Sergey Brin?  Hmm.  And where are the artists?  The writers?  Other than certain types of musicians, few contributors to the arts are even on the list.

All in all, it’s worth checking out what publishers are selling to our kids – not just in terms of who is included, but the underlying logic for why they are included.  I’m not even fully against what they’re selling here, though as a parent I must say that I’m not looking to create adversity or struggle for my children.  Maybe it’s because I don’t care if they’re famous or not or because I think of success based on a different set of criteria than implied in these books.  Or maybe it’s because I have a sense of balance and proportion and can recognize a bunch of hogwash when I see it.  That’s why it’s called the American Dream, not the American fact-based narrative.

I’m all for believing in core mythology as a construct, but as a foundation of how I live my life or teach my kids to live theirs?  That’s just crazy.


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